Conjectural questions The case of German verb-final wohl questions

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Regine Eckardt


The paper analyzes German verb-final questions with the particle wohl, which roughly translate as ‘Q, I wonder?’. It construes German as an instance of a general typological pattern: Conjectural questions (CQs) are marked by evidentials in many languages, and German wohl is an inferential evidential. The analysis proceeds in three steps. First, wohl is shown to pattern with inferential evidentials in other languages. Declarative wohl p asserts p and conveys ‘the speaker defeasibly infers p from secure knowledge’ as non-at-issue content. Second, the analysis is extended to standard wohl Q questions, accounting for the interrogative flip. Third, the analysis integrates conjectural verb-final wohl questions. I propose that CQs ask for answers that are defeasibly entailed by the pooled knowledge of speaker and addressee. Due to the logic of defeasible inference, the addressee is not in a position to answer the CQ unless both interlocutors have pooled their knowledge. In normal utterance contexts, these questions are thus un-answerable. We see two conventionalized reactions: the interlocutors engage in speculative discourse, or the CQ is understood as a statement of curiosity that doesn’t require a response.

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